Classics in the News: “The Thucydides Trap”

If one types “Thucydides” into Google these days, odds are the second item on the automatically generated list of search term suggestions is “Thucydides trap.”

Until very recently, I had been unaware of this term, which (according to my preliminary research) was coined by Harvard foreign policy expert Graham T. Allison about five years ago, and is inspired by this short passage:

“The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.” Thuc. 1.23 (trans. R. Craweley)

Prof. Allison applied this passage to what he perceived as a basic problem in contemporary international relations, i.e., how will the United States (Sparta) react to the growing strength and regional ambitions of China (Athens).  The term “Thucydides trap” has caught on amongst commentators, to the point that it is now apparently being used as a synonym for the whole “China question.”  (Follow this link for a recent addition to the literature: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-us-china-thucydides-trap-view-beijing-16903)

What interests me as a Classicist is not only the appearance of an ancient Greek historian’s name in contemporary discussions; it is the fact that the reference presumes something much more than a merely superficial engagement with a referenced ancient Greek text.  This fact is heartening, even if the geopolitical context is potentially worrying.

Here is my question to you, my fellow members of TCA: Can we find and document other instances where similarly serious Classical references are popping up in contemporary culture?  I do not mean the common and trivial references one normally sees, e.g., the mere use of mythological names for literary characters; I mean references that presume some kind of actual knowledge of Classical antiquity, and that are being applied to non-trivial discussions in contemporary media?

If we can locate more of these serious Classical references in current discourse, we may have a better idea where the “market” for our wares lies.

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